15. On habit
Reading De Botton’s “On Habit” struck me as not only witty and funny, but clever. The bedroom in his apartment becomes his vacation, his journey, his plaything, his adventure. I certainly never considered my apartment to be anything of the sort. For me, my apartment was always just home. The bed was an object in which I slept and I stored clothes in the closet. My door was just a door – and yet, the author dares to examine these objects further. We see them every day and over time, it becomes easy to simply live in a space. I think it’s also fascinating how he talks about deconstructing the process of forming habits, because it’s so true, especially when studying abroad. It’s very easy to create a comfortable space for yourself and to stick to a certain pattern when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. No one wants to venture outside of their comfort zone, and that is exactly what studying abroad strives to do. Once you start to become even slightly comfortable in your environment, the human instinct to settle and form a routine sets in. After reading the article, I began questioning the ways I have formed patterns and to which routines I conform. I would take the same bus and subway to class every day – but if I wanted to change it up, I would take the same subway and a different train back home! I did my grocery shopping most often on Tuesday mornings, but sometimes Fridays. I sat in the same chair in my living room to use my laptop. I also began thinking more critically about the ways in which I had grown accustomed to my living quarters. Upon closer inspection of my apartment, I realize that there are in fact many more hidden corners and spaces than I had imagined. Once I’d gotten used to stashing certain items in different patches of my room, I’d forgotten that there had even been space there at all. The corner in which I stowed my electronics was quite large. The two feet between my bed and closet are usually covered with plastic bags or various articles of clothing, but upon cleaning up, I discovered a whole new floor space that I’d forgotten about. In my cabinets, I found shelves that held endless possibilities for storage. The little chair in my room was reborn as a chair, not just a close hanger. By continually stepping back to remind myself of the small possibilities hiding behind every formed habit in Berlin.
Reading De Botton's piece, I found myself experiencing some minor feelings of frustration in that I think in his writing about travel, he often comes to points and ideas which I think are not about the experience of travel, but the experience of being a human being and a thoughtful being. There is of course the obvious point: that's his goal, to show the universality of the experience of travel and its applicability in our lives, but I think he often becomes complacent to simply lead a reader to the edge of an idea, as though it were a canyon, point out the miraculous view of it, and then turn around and go back to the trail of his original topic, instead of going rogue explorer, as would be so appropriate considering what he's writing about, and climb down into that canyon and start exploring the crevices, fault lines, and unknown depths of the idea he has arrived at. He doesn't get the bottom of things, is basically what I'm saying.
In particular with On Habit, what I thought was: isn't this the key to being 1) a writer or artist of any sort, and 2) a happy individual? As a writer, my constant inner monologue when consulting something is, what is in front of you? What can you see here, what can you recognize, what significance, that you could bring to someone else's attention in your work and as a result contribute positively to their lives? This is what art is, the selecting highlighting of elements that otherwise go unnoticed. And, as anyone who's ever seen an american romantic comedy can tell, happiness is falling in love, and falling in love is having some quirky girl show up just as your getting fed up with your boring job and slubby friend and shake things up by making you pay attention to the world around you (Audrey/Doris/Barbra/Diane/Goldie/Meg/Julia/Winona/Reese/Kirsten/Drew, I'm looking at you). But seriously, doesn't life play that out? When you feel great, doesn't it feel as though you're seeing everything for the first time, and when you feel awful you feel a million years old and incapable of being surprised by anything? I just felt like what he was getting at was pretty standard, pretty obvious, unless you push it into deeper territory.
What he's suggesting, at its heart, is that travelling is a mental exercise more than anything else, and can be simulated simply by greater attention to detail. But what are the implications of this? In thinking about this, I recalled an article I had read a few years back, one of those freak-the-crap-out-of-parents magazines put out now and then (I believe this one was Time). The cover read, "What's Wrong With The Boys: why our nation's young men are dropping out of school and ending up in jail" (Oh sensationalism, is there nothing you can't make seem terrifying?) The article of course had much less to report than the title suggested, and took a decidely limited point of view. It pointed out that there has been a slight spike, starting in the nineties, with prison rates among young men (even though the prisons have always been crowded, and young men have always comprised the largest number of inmates,) and that young women are now performing better in school grade-wise than young men and getting into better colleges in slightly larger numbers. (Nevermind that we are as a country now 51% female, so having a 51% female graduating class at most liberal arts colleges shouldn't be that surprising, or that fact that as a culture we are much faster to demonize female criminal behavior than male, or that the majority of politicians, doctors, lawyers, and CEOs remain male, so it's pretty hard to argue the American male is in trouble.) The article also tried to allege a connection between the increase in diagnoses of ADHD and Asbergers, two disorders which are more common than men, (although the increase in diagnoses in both genders has been proportionally the same, and the prevalence among males is easily explained by basic genetics) with the mild hike in prison rates, which makes no sense and is borderline offensive. So, in short, it was a very poorly written article, ad wasn't helped by it's oldschool boys v. girls gender politics. But one thing I read in it did catch my attention. A sidebar described a school for boys in Texas which had recently implimented a new discipline policy which has dramatically decreased the number of behavior problems they had with some of their more troubled students. The school had adopted the policy that, whenever there was an altercation between two male students, (which apparently had become a very regular problem) two aides would immediately remove both boys from the classroom and take them for a walk around the neighborhood while the boy was allowed to talk through what happened. Only once both students had described the incident thoroughly and calmed down were punishments allotted. While it seems fairly logical that allowing children to work through their problems aloud one-on-one would help significantly in preventing the problem from reoccuring, what the article really emphasized was the walking. It appeared that the strategy of making the boy change location and move while thinking majorly improved the kids' capacities to explain their thoughts and feelings and even improved the quality of their memory. The results were so immediate and overt that a local psychologist and neurosurgeon teamed up to investigate, and found after doing a test group experiment involving brain scans from children from different school of both genders, that high rates of testerone seem to create a link between the parts of the brain that controls movement and mechanical observation (sidestepping a puddle, things you do almost subconsciously) and the part that controls critical thinking, empathy, and communication. (This study had not been substantiated at the time of publication, and I didn't check to see if it has been since.) The exercise of physical movement and adjusting to new surroundings facilitated quicker and more direct evaluation of self, others, and the past.
The article decided to stick to such banal applications as sports, saying that it seemed boys were more suited to play baseball and basketball because they could strategize better while running, (ignoring the fact that testosterone levels, especially in children, fluctuate so quickly and differ so much on an individual basis that there is more variance within the sexes than between them.) But I thought that, as an idea, the implications were rather astounding. Historically, it goes almost without saying that explorers were men. Isabelle Eberhardt, Jane Franklin, Helen Thayer, all notable in their own way, were never permitted to go anywhere their male counterparts had not already explored, and were considered incredibly eccentric and suffered under enormous social pressures in their day. I personally am somewhat critical of overly psychological and physiological approaches to behavioral study, preferring to side with nurture and sociology over the preconceptions of nature, but regardless of where you side it is fascinating to consider how much the history of the exploration of the world was reliant on masculine identity, the social demanded (or biologically instilled, if that's your preference) need to travel, to escape, just to process, while women were shut up and home and, trapped without means of travel, provided the audience needed to facillitate the invention of the modern novel. I thought of "My Own Little Corner" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and wondered if de Maistre was getting credit for a technique women around the world had been using for years to maintain their sanity, and if this technique, to force one's mind to reconceptualize one's surroundings, was new only for men unhabituated to it and now increasingly needing it, having run out of continents to explore everytime we have a crisis.
So I leave it out there, because I don't have an answer: does gender change the way you travel?
While I found De Botton’s chapter, “On Habit,” clever and sharp as always, this time I also disagreed with certain attributions he made. These had to do mainly with the experience of home, and how we all function in our native environments.
De Botton says of home, “We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood.” Underlying this is an assumption that we have lived for a considerable time in one place, which represents a key difference between his reality and my own. I have lived in New York, uninterrupted (save this semester), for 2.5 years. In that time, I have moved 5 times. Though my city has remained the same, my immediate surroundings have always been in flux. In some ways, I suppose that has kept me in constant observing and discovery mode, and I have never reached the sort of ennui that De Botton describes in London.
However, I did recognize and relate to the process he describes, by which “our sensitivity is directed towards a number of elements, which we gradually reduce in line with the function we find for the space.” Even though I have never ceased to find new things in my immediate neighborhood, I do notice an almost inevitable focusing of my own routes, my gaze, and my network of stores, cafés, etc. After finding an efficient route to the subway, my favorite place to buy bread, or the most pleasant bike ride, I tend to return to them by rote.
Where I depart from De Botton’s thinking is that, to me, this narrowing is not a negative development. Rather, I have found a sense of pleasure and accomplishment in becoming a bit of a specialist in my neighborhood. To be able to separate out what one likes from what one doesn’t, to know how to access the good things, and to not lose time on the annoying ones (like slow people on the sidewalk)… aren’t these all desirable adaptations? Selective usage of one’s habitat isn’t necessarily a dulling of the senses or a blindness to new discoveries; it can also be one of the joys of acclimating to a new home.
I agree with De Botton that our increased “receptiveness” while traveling is an essential and wonderful aspect of the experience. I would add, though, that that awareness extends beyond the journey, and into the return. I notice when I travel, even just to a neighboring state or borough, that certain features of my home environment stand out as different. For example, I’m always keenly aware of the more open sky and the quiet in Brooklyn when I return from a day in Manhattan. Who knows what details, previously unremarkable, will jump out at me when I return home from Paris?
I don’t think the danger lies in falling into well-loved routines in our own neighborhoods. The risk is more that we don’t venture beyond those surroundings frequently enough, in order to return and see them more clearly. I’m thinking of Santayana’s quote, back when we read “The Philosophy of Travel,” which gets at this exact idea. “Turning… from the familiar to the unfamiliar,” which can be accomplished by even the smallest scale travel, “keeps the mind nimble.”
Near the beginning of this semester, I wrote a blog entry about my walk to school, and the interesting things I sometimes noticed on the way, crossing the Pont de Grenelle: a film-crew, a “pigeon-man,” a woman leading miniature ponies. Though I actually saw the woman with the ponies again a few days ago, walking towards the bridge, I feel like my heightened awareness, which came from the newness of living in Paris—of crossing the Seine to get to class—has gradually faded over the course of my time here. For a while, I tried to make myself notice one new or interesting thing on every walk to school; recently, though, I’ve usually been focused on nothing but making it to class on time: how many minutes do I have? will the light change soon? and why won’t these people in front of me walk any faster?
Reading de Botton’s “On Habit,” I was struck that his descriptions of the new and exciting becoming mundane sounded so familiar. We become “settled in our expectations”; we grow “habituated and therefore blind to” what’s around us, what used to be so exciting and unknown. I forget about the quaint house mixed in with all the skyscrapers on the right bank of the Seine; I hurry past the Maison de Balzac, with its beautiful little garden, telling myself one day I’ll stop in to look around or sit on a bench reading (maybe one day when it isn’t raining). As de Botton writes, I reduce my awareness to only a few things, the absolute necessities for getting from my apartment to my classroom without being late or completely out of breath. I miss the beginning of my time in Paris, when my awareness of the city and all its small quirks was much more open.
And yet it can sometimes be hard to retain “the travelling mind-set” to our own quotidian lives, our own neighborhoods and well-trodden routes. Of course, I still love wandering around a little area of Paris, an unfamiliar pocket of an increasingly familiar city; holding on to this attitude, this receptivity to discovery, doesn’t always fit in with the tasks and stresses of everyday. Perhaps, in my last two weeks in Paris, I should just leave my apartment a few minutes earlier, so I have the time and the concentration to notice more than the pavement in front of me on my way to school.
“…there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last-” ~E.B. White, Here Is New York
“…Prague harbors more secrets of the magic, or mystical kind than any other city in Europe;” ~Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold
On the very first morning of my freshman orientation at Gallatin, a breakfast was held at the top of Kimmel. At each place setting was an excerpt from a short book by E.B. White, describing New York as a place of three types of people. The first was residents, people who live and have lived on the Upper East Side, or in the heart of Brooklyn, for all or most of their lives. The second was commuters, those who enter the city, use it during the daylight, and travel back to the suburbs to live the rest of their lives. The third, and in this author’s esteem, the most valuable, were those on a quest, those who came to New York because they were following a goal or a passion or a road to someplace different. He claimed that they were the magic of New York, they were the people who create the aura of mystery and wonder that surrounds the city at all times.
I resolved very quickly not to let go of my questing status. However, after two years and a grueling summer of work in which I was commuting back and forth from New Jersey for financial reasons, I found myself longing for Prague in August. I wanted the thrill of Humboldt’s “marvelous world,” but even more, I wanted to reclaim the wonder that New York inspires in me upon my return.
Prague has of course been a marvelous world. However, for the first couple weeks of November I found myself bowing to the pressure of malaise, and the heaviness that permeates this country. It is only recently, as my stay here begins to draw to a close, that I have suddenly found myself feeling comfortable, at home, with habits and schedules and routine. I keep a small notebook with me most of the time, which I use, at home and here, to write about people and things I see in my daily life. I call it my subway notebook. This summer, one of the chief indicators that I was growing bored and not seeing New York in full anymore was the petering out of entries into this notebook. I filled several pages in the beginning with Prague-isms, but of late I find that I write in it less and less often. Prague is beginning to feel so much like home that I am beginning to lose sight of the sights.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Habit, much as it limits our view of the world, is useful. It provides us a bit of respite from having to think about every little detail of life all the time. Having habits means that I have organization, structure, and comfort. It allows me to relax and assess. But I agree with DeBotton, Nietsche, and deMaistre. There is much of value in stepping back, looking around, and simply “traveling” through your daily life to reinvigorate your soul. And I will try my damnedest for these last two weeks in Prague to soak up as much as I can, to mesh my comfort and habits with a reminiscence of the sheer mervelousness of travel, so that when I re-enter my life in America, everything will shine with the experience of these past months.
Every morning at 9:57 my dinky cell phone plays a little jingle to wake me up from my sweaty sleep in a stuffy room. I always hit snooze twice, so at 10:03 I roll out of bed to get dressed in the dark as my roommate continues to sleep. I have the routine down. I open up one shutter to get dressed, close it, and then proceed to open another shutter on the other side of the room to eat breakfast. I pick and choose what books I feel like carrying to school that day (I always try to carry as few things as possible). I grab my i-pod and start rocking out down the streets on my 30-minute walk to school. I zig-zag my way to Avenida Charcas and remain on that street the rest of the way to school. I walk down that street to and from school everyday. I couldn’t tell you a single store name on that street. I have clearly lost what De Botton calls the “travel mindset.” After my first stroll down Charcas, I stopped noticing the small details. I no longer paid attention to the people drinking coffee at the cafes or the flowers and fruits being sold along the street. My main focus quickly became what song should I listen to next as I get to school AS FAST AS I CAN.
I like the “travel mindset” theory. “The notion that the pleasure we derive from a journey may be more dependent on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to,” describes De Botton. I find this very true. If I wanted, I could take a walk down my driveway and notice things in nature that I had never noticed before. I could be entranced by my own land if I wanted to. Yet I always zoom through to get somewhere, either home or elsewhere. De Botton suggests that a travel mindset could consist of being receptive. I could find as many interesting things walking from my bed to the front door of my host family’s apartment as walking down Charcas street depending on how receptive and open my mind was. If I was in an explorative mode, anywhere could be foreign.
Departure day is in less than three weeks. I need to bring myself back to my original mindset that I had upon arrival in Buenos Aires. I can only be a tourist here for so much longer. I need to stop taking it all for granted as I storm to and from class. I want to continue to see and do as much as I can before I go, whether it is walking more slowly around the city or visiting museums. My time here is all up to me. I can either breeze through it or take the time to smell the roses.
I found it DeBotton’s chapter “On Habit,” to be one of the most interesting pieces we’ve read from him. I loved the concept of the “travel mindset” and of “room travel.” I think that far too often people, including myself, slip into a routine where things that were once marvelous become ordinary, or even worse, boring.
Just recently, a week or so before reading this piece, I was hanging out with my host brother Mickey and we went out for a walk. He dropped something off at a friend’s house, and afterwards when I asked him what he wanted to do, he said just walk around the city for a bit. At first, I thought, walk around the city? Why? What for? I often think about walking around the city as a pain, something I have to do in between other activities. Getting from my house to school. Getting from school to a park. Getting from a park to a museum, etc… In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time that I had just walked around just to walk around. As we walked and talked, I started to look at buildings that I pass regularly, buildings that I see almost everyday, and really appreciate them. It’s easy, especially in a big city, to slip into “tunnel vision” (just look at EVERYONE in New York). Everybody’s talking on their cell phone, living their lives, getting from place to place, each person in their own universe. It felt so good to just walk and chat and look around. The buildings here are incredible. There are so many amazing things to see and appreciate. I realized how jaded I had become to this spectacular city, in only 3 plus months! Not that I was/am bored (on the contrary, I’m loving it here more and more), but just that I had slipped into my own “tunnel vision” when I walked around. I’ve made it my goal to do more exploring, both of new neighborhoods and my own, and really look at and appreciate the beauty that Buenos Aires has to offer.
I think that this is the “travel mindset” that DeBotton was talking about. When we travel, we take in so much more than in our day-to-day lives and we appreciate things that we might otherwise pass over. In many ways, the travel mindset is a way of “stopping and smelling the flowers,” and I believe that’s something that we could all use more of.
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As I sit writing this blog in Argentina, I’m currently streaming a live show of my favorite band occurring in Philadelphia, booking holiday tickets for a flight to Miami, emailing my mom in NY and stumbling upon a number of other random website- all in the confines of my comfortable air conditioned studio. If Xavier de Maistre lived in today’s world I don’t think he ever would have left the realms of his lair. Everyday as soon as we log onto the Internet we have the ability to literally travel around the world without ever stepping foot outside. We can make our money on the Internet, order our food for delivery on websites, pay our bills, read books, listen to music, check out photos and even communicate with our friends face to face. The technological advances we have created in our common age have made the strange notion of room travel an everyday experience. Why venture to the outside world when we can survive and entertain ourselves simply jump into our pajamas, sprawl out on the couch and veg out to the constant flow of information stemming from the Internet?
I for one believe in Maistre’s notions that travel is what we make of it and it really doesn’t matter to what location we travel to, as long as we are in a frame of mind that is conducive to enjoyable exploration. Sometimes I take for granted the peace and tranquility experienced in my bedroom, especially the studio I live in abroad. The king size bed with a delicate pillow top, the simple side table light that guides my journey’s into the realm of books before I fall asleep, and a dozen other useful items that make my life function. However, on the other hand falling into the trappings of a comfortable living space denies one access to the wonderful world occurring around you. On a beautiful today in Buenos Aires I felt like the heat was too much to bear so I simply escaped the world and spent the entire day in my apartment. Sure I got to download an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, read different news articles from around the world, and work on the job search for when I get back to the US- but I could have been outside, taking a stroll along the ecological reserve or renting a kayak on the river basin in Tigre. My time abroad is rapidly coming to an end but instead of forcing myself to take greater advantage of a city I might never visit again, I find myself doing the exact same things I could be doing anywhere else in the world. And though I’m exciting about returning home, seeing long lost friends, taking my dog for a walk and eating a falafel on St. Mark’s street, as De Botton clearly states in the first paragraph of this chapter---our homes have a tendency of remaining the same.
Now instead of just leaving this writing as a blog post, I think its time I actually followed my own advice, I’m getting the hell of my couch, catching a cab and going out for a couple drinks. Chao. Hasta Luego.
I really enjoyed reading the chapter “On Habit” for a number of reasons. Mainly because it reminded me of how I would go on “room travels” all the time as a kid. Because I moved around so much, every new house was like an adventure ready to be explored. New nooks and crannies for miscellaneous items to be stored, boxes still left unopened, and a curious appetite made for hours of entertainment. My journey consisted of memories- my own, my parents’, my siblings’, and any other memories I could delve my hands into. Finding old photo albums never got old and even discovering letters was always a treat for the mischievous little girl that I was.
Now that I’m older and a college student who goes home only for the holidays, “room travel” has become a very necessary thing for me to do. Especially since the two winter breaks I’ve had in college so far have been in two totally different places (Korea, then Hawaii). Freshman year, I had to acquaint myself to a new house and a new room only to have to reacquaint myself to another new house and new room sophomore year.
My Hawaii room actually proved to be quite a journey down memory lane because up until that point, a lot of our stuff had been in storage for years. (We’re only allowed to bring an allotted weight internationally so unnecessary items were left stateside.) My mom had filled my room with all of my old books, toys and other items that I hadn’t seen since middle school. Needless to say, hours went by without me even realizing the time. And the fact that I was in Hawaii, a popular vacation destination and my first time visiting didn’t even faze me from reconnecting with my past the first couple of days I was home. Strange, now that I think about it…
Here in Italy, I feel a disconnect with my room. Knowing that I would only be here for a few months, I packed VERY lightly (especially when comparing with my roommate and housemate). I literally take up a tiny little corner of the room that can now fit just one suitcase (I sent one suitcase of summer clothes back with my boyfriend a few weekends ago when he visited…). And I’m not one to scatter my things all over the place or tack things up on the wall and claim the space as mine.
Still, if I let myself explore a little, my little corner of the room does hold quite a lot. My school books (though not many because I refused to buy them if they were available at the school library…), my journal, little trinkets and other school necessities that I brought with me, a plant my host dad bought for me on our second day here (still alive!), mementoes such as tickets and brochures from various places I’ve visited here in Europe. Maybe I’ll take a little room travel later…
As the end of the semester draws closer by the day, it’s hard not to think about what it will be like to return home. Although I won’t truly be returning until June, I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to re-enter a culture I have been away from for so long. DeBotton’s “On Habit” made me consider the many aspects of travelling and living abroad.
For me, the most striking part of the essay concerned the difference between the eyes of a traveler and the eyes of the native. After visiting foreign lands, we often return to our homes with a lackluster perspective of home. “…The appearance of London on my return was a reminder of the indifference of the world to any of the events unfolding in the lives of its inhabitants.” I remember returning home from my first trip abroad as a teenager and feeling this way. I think it’s a common and almost safe response meant to validate our time away. However, I am very much looking forward to returning to New York, its comforts, and hidden pockets of unconventional beauty. If anything, living in the space between tourist and resident has instilled in me a greater appreciation and openness toward the beauty of home.
Travelling is truly a gift, especially for a college student. I realized this when DeBotton considered the work of Alexander Von Humboldt. We are constantly learning and expanding our interests, however, very often we do not stop to consider the importance and the impact of our surroundings. By spending time abroad, I feel as though I have a heightened awareness of the intricate details of places I experience. Being somewhere new, somewhere uncomfortable, or even somewhere familiar in a new context can awaken an intellectual and personal curiosity. “On Habit” made me question my habits and forced me to consider the value and benefits of feeling uncomfortable.
As I am spending the year in Paris, I feel as though I am more inclined to make my apartment and the city feel more like home. While I feel like this is important, I feel that there is a certain danger in this sentiment after reading DeBotton’s perspective. Gaining new appreciations and expanding your world view requires a certain amount of feeling like an outsider. “There are some who have crossed deserts, floated on ice caps, and cut their way through jungles but whose souls we would search in vain for evidence of what they have witnessed.” I want to be the fruit of my experiences and DeBotton made me realize that habit and complacency will never serve that end.